Saturday, September 25, 2010

EPA finally gets tough with states on Chesapeake Bay pollution; localities will feel the impact

"Federal officials began a sweeping crackdown on pollution in the Chesapeake Bay on Friday, threatening to punish five mid-Atlantic states with rules that could raise sewer bills and put new conditions on construction," reports David Farenthold of The Washington Post.

"The move by the Environmental Protection Agency is part of the biggest shakeup in the 27-year history of the Chesapeake cleanup. Earlier, when states failed to meet deadlines to cut pollution by 2000 and 2010, nothing happened. Now, the deadline has been moved to 2025 - but the EPA is already threatening states that lag behind." Yesterday's threat went to Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and New York, "which together account for more than 70 percent of the pollution that causes 'dead zones' in the bay," Farenthold writes. EPA said the states' cleanup plans have "serious deficiencies."

EPA could force the states to take "expensive new measures" that could raise sewer bills and property taxes, and impose new rules on farms, Farenthold notes. he calls that "a significant political risk. In an era when environmentalism seems to be losing steam, it is betting that residents of the Chesapeake region care enough to pay the cost of saving the bay." Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger, who works for Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, told the Post that EPA was issuing dictates like the Chinese Communist Party, but "Environmentalists cheered Friday's news as a potential turning point for the Chesapeake," Farenthold reports.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers still major threats to streams and groundwater, study finds

Nitrogen and phosphorus from fertlizers remain a serious problem in American waterways, the U.S. Geological Survey announced today. "USGS findings show that widespread concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus remain two to ten times greater than levels recommended by the EPA to protect aquatic life. Most often, these elevated levels were found in agricultural and urban streams," the agency said.

Patrick Reis of Greenwire writes that from 1992 to 2004, "More streams experienced an increase in nitrogen and phosphorus levels than saw a decline, said Neil Dubrovsky, USGS's chief of nutrient research and leader of the national water quality assessment. Nutrients are also on the rise in groundwater, and an increasing number of wells are drawing from supplies that fail U.S. EPA's standards to protect public health, Dubrovsky said." He also told Reis that conditions in groundwater, which supplies many major public ewater supplies, have probably declined since 2004 and will keep doing so as the nutrients move down the water table. The USGS release is here.

Genetically engineered salmon could signal the future of agriculture and food

On Wednesday we reported on the controversy around the Food and Drug Administration's decision to approve genetically engineered salmon for human consumption. The salmon, engineered to grow twice as fast as normal salmon, would be the first genetically engineered animal to reach the dinner plate but could be just the first step in changing the face of U.S. food and agriculture, Seth Borenstein and Malcolm Ritter of The Associated Press report. Among the other projects being evaluated in labs and on experimental farms are vaccines grown in bananas and other plants, "enviropigs" with less polluting manure and cows that don't release methane.

"To the biotech world, precise tinkering with the genes in plants and animals is a proven way to reduce disease, protect from insects and increase the food supply to curb world hunger," Borenstein and Ritter write. "To skeptics, genetic changes put the natural world and the food supply at risk. Modified organisms can escape into the wild or mingle with native species, potentially changing them, with unknown effects." Over the last 15 years genetically engineered plants have accounted for more than 2 billion acres of crops in over 20 countries.

Traditional breeding has been compared to using a sledgehammer, while genetic engineers say their process is more like using a scalpel. "All of the animals, plants and microbes we use in our food system, our agricultural system, are genetically modified in one way or another," Bruce Chassy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign told AP. "That, or they're wild." Martina Newell McGloughlin, director of the University of California's Biotechnology Research and Education Program, added, "Genetic engineering is more precise and predictable, yet it is regulated up the wazoo. Yet there is no regulation at all on the traditional breeding system." (Read more)

Senators tell EPA boss she's too hard on farmers

Lawmakers lashed out against Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and the way her agency is regulating agriculture during a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing Thursday. Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chairwoman of the committee, criticized EPA for allowing "people that normally sit behind a computer" to set and enforce regulations on farmers, Gabriel Nelson of Environment & Energy Daily reports. Republican South Dakota Sen. John Thune told Jackson, "Out here, what seems to make sense, it just really doesn't in the rural areas of our country."

Lincoln, who is polling well behind her Republican challenger in her re-election bid, also took EPA to task for "new guidance on pesticide spraying, proposed restrictions on toxic emissions from biomass boilers and the possibility that the agency will move to tighten the national air quality standard for coarse particulate matter, or dust," Nelson writes. Nebraska Republican Sen. Mike Johanns said EPA rules are having a negative impact on small farmers, who are struggling to adapt to rules meant for large-scale agriculture.

"There's a feeling out in the country that you walked in, the president walked in, and every idea for more regulation was dusted off and cut loose and agriculture is under attack," Johanns told Jackson. "That's how people feel." Jackson countered that EPA actually imposed fewer rules on farms last year than the Bush administration did in its final year. "I believe that we cannot be a strong country without a strong agricultural sector, that we cannot be prosperous if we cannot feed ourselves. And from an environmental perspective, importing food with the huge carbon footprint that it means is much less preferable," Jackson said. "Any belief that there's an agenda that somehow targets that sector would be the furthest thing from who I am." (Read more)

Workplace discrimination complaints by Muslims reached a record high in fiscal 2009

We reported earlier this month that JBS Swift was facing a lawsuit alleging discrimination against Muslim workers at two of its meatpacking plants. That example is one of many; Muslim workers filed a record 803 claims of employment discrimination in the federal fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009, up 20 percent from the previous year and 60 percent from 2005, Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times reports. The number of complaints filed in the current fiscal year won't be announced until January, but with American Muslims in the spotlight, claims are expected to rise again.

"The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has found enough merit in some of the complaints that it has filed several prominent lawsuits on behalf of Muslim workers," Greenhouse writes, pointing to the one against JBS, one against retailer Abercrombie & Fitch and another against hotel company Four Points Sheraton. "There’s a level of hatred and animosity that is shocking," Mary Jo O’Neill, regional attorney of the EEOC’s Phoenix office, told Greenhouse. "I’ve been doing this for 31 years, and I’ve never seen such antipathy toward Muslim workers."

Muslims, who make up less than 2 percent of Americans, accounted for about a fourth of the 3,386 religious discrimination claims filed with the commission last year, Greenhouse reports. Claims of race, sex and age discrimination fell in fiscal 2009. The number of complains filed against Muslims even exceeds the number in the year following the 2001 terrorist attacks. "We can go back in history and find other times when there were hot emotional and political tensions over religion," Michael J. Zimmer, co-author of several books on employment discrimination and a law professor at Loyola University in Chicago, told Greenhouse. "Right now, there is a lot of heat as to the Muslims." (Read more)

Massey executives sue to avoid testifying in investigation of disaster that killed 29 miners

Six Massey Energy executives, including the company's safety director, have filed a lawsuit challenging subpoenas that would force them to answer questions about the April explosion that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners. "Lawyers for Massey . . . mine managers allege the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training is wrongly using its subpoena power to help federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials force them to appear for interviews with investigators," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports.

"It is apparent that MSHA has inveigled OMHST to serve as MSHA's stalking horse in this matter, a role the state of West Virginia neither has nor could assign to the state agency," the lawyers wrote in papers filed in Raleigh County Circuit Court. Longtime mine safety advocate J. Davitt McAteer, who is conducting an independent probe of the disaster for Gov. Joe Manchin, countered, "It is unprecedented in the history of mining accidents in this country for a substantial group of mine management to refuse to provide information which will help to prevent this kind of accident from occurring in the future."

In the filings, the Massey executives specifically object to MSHA investigators taking part in any witness interviews conducted by state officials. State law allows West Virginia officials to compel witnesses for questioning about mining accidents in private or public hearings, but federal law allows MSHA to only issue subpoenas for public hearings, Ward writes. MSHA officials did not respond to request for comment about the Massey lawsuit. (Read more)

Gas drilling, proposed severance tax on gas are issues in race for governor of Pennsylvania

We have reported frequently on the effort to get natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that stretches from Ohio to New York and across two-thirds of Pennsylvania. The formation is believed to hold the largest untapped natural gas reserves in the United States. John Gramlich of explores the political implications of drilling, the upcoming election in Pennsylvania and the possible outcomes. (Map of Marcellus Shale)

Political contributions by the gas industry in Pennsylvania have gone up as lawmakers there have debated placing a severance tax on gas, reports Gramlich. The industry has spent more than $7 million in combined campaign donations and lobbying expenses to state politicians, which have tripled in the last three years. The Republican nominee for governor, Tom Corbett, is opposed to the severance tax and received $284,000 from natural gas drillers last year. The Democratic nominee, Dan Onorato, is a severance tax supporter and received only $59,000 from drillers.

“There’s no one here who doesn’t have an opinion about it,” says Fritz Mayer, editor of The River Reporter, a local weekly newspaper whose entire staff now covers the drilling beat. The paper’s circulation has risen because of intense interest in the debate, Mayer said to Gramlich. In an effort to win over the public, the gas industry has "taken out full-page newspaper advertisements promising an economic revival for a Rust Belt state known for played-out coal mines and long-shuttered steel plants," reports Gramlich.

The Delaware River Basin Commission has so far refused to allow drilling to commence. "At issue for the commission is whether natural gas drilling — and particularly a commonly used technique known as 'hydraulic fracturing' — will contaminate local drinking water supplies, which happen to include those for many of the East Coast’s biggest urban areas," according to Gramlich. (Read more)

The Obama administration has decided to stay out of efforts to block Marcellus drilling, reports Mike Soraghan of Environment & Energy Daily. Brig. Gen. Peter "Duke" DeLuca, commander of the North Atlantic Division of the Army Corps of Engineers, last week declined a request from Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) to use DeLuca's vote on the Basin Commission to seek a temporary ban on gas production in the watershed. DeLuca was unwilling to wait on the DRBC's cumulative impact statement saying that could delay drilling for years. (Read more, subscription required)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Jobs program in Tennessee kept some rural residents working -- for a while

Last year, when the unemployment rate in Perry County, Tennessee, hit 27 percent, Gov. Phil Bredesen initiated a  $10.8 million jobs program. This month, the program ends and only 100 of the 400 residents who got private-sector work at offices, stores and factories will be able to keep their jobs, reports Bonna Johnson for The Tennessean. "We'll be treating this like a mass layoff," Jan Mc-Keel, executive director of South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance, said to Johnson. But not every business that received funding is laying off employees. The Armstrong Pie Company, in Linden, Tenn., was able to keep its new employees because their business expanded with the new staff.

Tennessee's program has drawn interest from around the country, including from Colorado, Florida and Mississippi, according to Johnson. To qualify for the program, families had to be at a certain income level, and in most instances had to have a minor child at home. "The major success is the number of people that had jobs during this time were able to get a paycheck and take care of their families," Commissioner Gina Lodge of the Tennessee Department of Human Services, one of the agencies that coordinated the program, said to Johnson. Continued high unemployment in the participating counties doesn't point to failure, Lodge said. Rather, it underscores the limited opportunities in those rural areas and the need for long-term solutions. (Read more)

Records show how Ky. zoning board was pressured to reject permit for storefront mosque

A Western Kentucky city zoning board's denial of a permit to open a mosque has drawn legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union, raising questions about the reasons for the denial. The Mayfield board cited parking and building capacity issues in its denial of a Somali man's request, but an open records request from religion reporter Peter Smith of The Courier-Journal reveals the board faced pressure on both sides of the debate that had little to do with land-use issues.

"The application was caught up in a nationwide debate over the expansion of mosques across the United States, with opponents fearing they could breed terrorism and the implementation of Islamic law, and proponents saying Muslims want to live and worship peacefully under the same rights other Americans enjoy," Smith, reports, offering an important example of the value of traditional investigative reporting even on a beat that is feature-oriented.

A letter from the ACLU said "the Board of Zoning Adjustment's rejection on Aug. 24 was 'procedurally defective,' based on false assumptions and violated constitutional and statutory protections for freedom of religion," Smith writes. Those assertions will rest partly on an Aug. 20 e-mail exchange that City Planner Brad Rogers had with a local resident. Rogers said he had "many concerns" that the Somalis "were free to practice their religion," adding, "Although we don't agree with it, and there are radical elements in some parts of the world, we have to be tolerant until they do something they are not supposed to do. The city cannot legally prevent a mosque from being built, as long as codes are met."

In another e-mail conversation Rogers told a supporter the controversy was a "media driven mess." Several board members said during the meeting when the permit was denied the issue was not one religion versus another, and that everyone had to be treated the same, but an overflow crowd expressed anti-Muslim sentiments. The board reversed its original decision to approve the permit even after acknowledging it failed to let the proponent of the mosque speak at the hearing. "The board made the right decision when it originally granted the permit," Michael Aldridge, ACLU of Kentucky executive director, said in a statement. "It is troubling that it reversed course when there were no changes in circumstances." (Read more)

Report points to community engagement as key to turning around rural schools

Rural schools face a unique set of challenges compared to their urban counterparts, and a new report from a rural education advocacy group says the community-school model may be the solution to those challenges. In citing "community school" definitions from both the U.S. Department of Education and Coalition for Community Schools, Doris Terry Williams of The Rural School and Community Trust concludes, "Engagement in community schools occurs when parents, students, school staff, and neighbors invest in the school, co-creating and owning it. There is a conscious effort to ensure that services are not merely co-located but integrated in a way that increases the social capital that goes into overcoming or removing the barriers to student, family, and community success and citizenship."

In the report, "The Rural Solution," Williams argues, "Full-service community schools have the potential to mitigate the negative influence of poverty and other ills on children’s ability to succeed in school and in their adult roles later in life," and those schools "might be the most economically feasible way to accomplish that goal in low-resource, rural areas." The report examines three examples of thriving rural community schools in Booneville, Ky.; Bennington, Vt.; and North Berwick, Maine. At the Owsley County School District in Kentucky, "School and district leaders have leveraged scarce resources to provide a number of innovative programs, including a Save the Children literacy project, an artist-in-residence, gifted and talented services, Reading First, and Everyday Mathematics," Williams writes.

"Folks realized that in order to facilitate education and address the physical, emotional, and social needs of students, you had to work with the entire community," Owsley County High School Principal Stephen Gebbard told Williams. "In order to better the children, you have to better society." The report acknowledges implementing the community-school model isn't easy for rural schools. To facilitate the change, Williams suggests that states and rural districts develop a rural-teacher recruitment strategy that emphasizes the benefits of teaching in a community school; rural districts should remove barriers to substantive parental and community engagement in schools; new school planning should incorporate multiple related community needs; states should help to reduce financial risk to community school partners when they undertake new construction projects, and Congress should invest in and encourage community schools. (Read more)

Journalism group urges Senate to move ahead with shield law

The U.S. Senate's delay of a federal shield law is hurting the American public, says the Society of Professional Journalists. Delays in passing S. 448, the Free Flow of Information Act, "continue to place U.S. journalists at risk of heavy civil fines and imprisonment," SPJ writes in a news release. "That leads to reluctance to investigate stories and ultimately is a disservice to the American public and an open, democratic society." The bill would prohibit the enforcement of federal subpoenas against reporters who refuse to identify their confidential sources in certain circumstances.

"We are rapidly closing in on the end of this congressional session, and we remind the senators that U.S. journalists have an expectation that this bill will be resolved," SPJ President Kevin Z. Smith said in the release. "After years of advocacy for this bill, we are close to a resolution, and we have hammered out what should be the last points of contention. We strongly encourage senators to allow a vote." He continued, "Delaying or killing this bill isn’t just a blow to journalists covering the federal government; it’s a blow to the American people who will see fewer stories about their government. Unprotected sources don’t generally share information with the media. Killing this bill is a win for secrecy in government." (Read more)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Energy resources help states weather recession

States with strong revenue from energy are among those emerging from the recession in the best shape. "Since the recession officially ended in June 2009, a group of about 10 states that have outperformed the nation almost continuously for 25 or more years again is generating new income at a faster pace than the rest of the nation," Dennis Cauchon of USA Today reports. States including Texas, North Carolina, Idaho and Alaska have used energy revenue to weather the recession. "Even coal states such as Kentucky have enjoyed strong income gains," Cauchon writes

"Idaho ranked 10th in personal income growth in the year since the recession's end, up from 50th among states and Washington, D.C., during the recession," Cauchon writes. "That's the USA's biggest rebound." Bibiana Nertney of the Idaho Department of Commerce, explained, "Our pipeline of companies looking to expand or relocate here is the biggest it's been in a decade." Sun Belt states, including Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia are among those doing the worse since the recession officially ended in June 2009. (Read more)

Several western states are hoping to get in on the energy boom in preparation for an oil rush. "Not many wells have been drilled yet, but just about everything else is in place for an oil boom in eastern Wyoming, northern Colorado and western Nebraska, where the Niobrara Shale and its hard-to-tap crude lay nearly two miles underground," Mead Gruver of The Associated Press reports. "Preliminary work is under way to map underground geological formations to figure out the best places to drill. Oil prospectors are poring over courthouse records to see who holds mineral rights so they can negotiate deals."

Oil money has helped North Dakota coast through the recession will the lowest unemployment of any state at 3.6 percent and a $500 million budget surplus. Companies are hoping the Niobara Shale holds vast reserves of recoverable oil like North Dakota's Bakken Shale. Still, fear of oil spills and possible water contamination from hydraulic fracturing have tempered enthusiasm in the region. "Beverly Hillbillies, rags to riches, (because) we've got oil," Diane Bishop, who owns 70 acres near Cheyenne, told Gruver. "Not necessarily. ... We'll be lucky to get enough money to pay the taxes on our property out there," Bishop said." (Read more)

Further research and special labeling urged for genetically engineered salmon

Earlier this month we reported the Food and Drug Administration was moving ahead with its decision to approve genetically engineered salmon for human consumption. The independent panel made up largely of veterinary scientists, convened by the FDA to discuss the salmon decision said yesterday, "while a genetically engineered salmon is almost certainly safe to eat, the government should pursue a more rigorous analysis of the fish's possible health effects and environmental impact," Paul Voosen of Greenwire reports for The New York Times. Since the salmon decision will likely carry heavy precedent in the future, the board said the agency should be especially rigorous in its evaluation. (Read more)

Meanwhile, consumer groups are pushing for FDA to require genetically-engineered salmon to be labeled as such, while industry groups say no labeling is needed. "The FDA said it couldn't require a genetically modified product to carry a different label under current food-labeling rules, unless there was something materially different about the product," Jennifer Corbett Dooren of The Wall Street Journal reports. "A preliminary review of AquaBounty's salmon hasn't found any major differences between it and conventional Atlantic salmon."

"The FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine will make a decision on whether to approve the modified salmon, while the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition will make a decision on the label," Dooren writes, noting both decisions are likely months away. Alexis Baden-Mayer, who represented the Organic Consumers Association, said that "consumers want to know if their fish is genetically engineered." (Read more)

MSHA issues emergency coal-dust ruling

The Mine Safety and Health Administration issued an emergency rule to control the buildup of highly explosive coal dust in underground mines. The rule will "force operators to apply more crushed stone to the walls, floors and other surfaces in underground coal mines," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. "It's something that's long overdue," said Dennis O'Dell, safety and health director for the United Mine Workers union. "We support it, absolutely."

"Experts from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health urged a toughening of federal 'rock dusting' standards in reports published in 2006 and 2009," Ward writes. "But MSHA officials did not act until another NIOSH report was published this May, a month after 29 miners died in an explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County." Federal and state investigators have pointed to a buildup of the dust as a key contributor in the Upper Big Branch disaster. (Read more)

New York Times blasts Republicans for delaying bill to improve mine safety

The Senate's delay of new mine safety regulations during the election season is intolerable, writes The New York Times in its Sunday editorial. "The case for far stronger safety laws was tragically made last April when 29 miners were killed in an explosion down in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia," the Times writes. "The shoddy safety record of the mine owner, Massey Energy, soon became clear — along with the need to plug gaping flaws in regulations and enforcement biased toward owners over miners who take all the risks"

The newspaper notes the House has a mine safety bill moving toward a floor vote, but the Senate's "attempt at a bipartisan bill is floundering." West Virginia Democratic Sen. John Rockefeller is blaming Republican staffers on the delay, but the Times asks, "Where are the elected principals on such a vital issue?" The House bill would give the Mine Safety and Health Administration subpoena power over recalcitrant owners, increase civil and criminal penalties, provide protection for whistle-blowing miners and mandate faster disaster investigations.

The House bill now includes safety amendments to account for some of the issues raised by the Gulf of Mexico summer oil blowout, providing even more motivation for passing the bill, the newspaper writes. "Republicans insist that they are not obstructionists serving Big Coal, but Mr. Rockefeller has the greater credibility," the Times concludes. "Last April, the death toll from Upper Big Branch found both chambers resounding with regret and resolve for reform. So, where’s the action? Can lawmaking be any harder than mining?" (Read more)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rural editor wins Ky. First Amendment Award

John Nelson, editor of the Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky., last night received the James Madison Award for service to the First Amendment, presented by the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center in School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. (A-M photo by Clay Jackson)

Nelson, who also oversees editorial operations of other Schurz Communications newspapers in Kentucky, won the award because "He has fought for open government in a number of important ways," former Kentucky Post editor Judith Clabes, the award's first winner, said in presenting it to him. She cited the nomination from Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson, who wrote, “Few people in Kentucky are as adamant about open government. If more had the drive that John Nelson has exhibited during his journalism career, there would be a demand from every corner of the state that all public agencies operate in ‘sunshine’ and make the agency’s business truly the public’s business.”

As KPA president in 2004, Nelson led Kentucky's first statewide public-records audit and was instrumental in creating the KPA Legal Defense Fund and a lawsuit that KPA filed to open juvenile court proceedings. Federal courts rejected the suit's arguments, but the Court of Appeals "interpreted state law in a way it had never before been interpreted, giving judges an opening to allow the press into the courtroom at their own discretion," he said in his acceptance remarks. Nelson has also been president of the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Some prefer to invest in farmland, not Wall Street

"Pension fund managers, hedge-fund operators and hungry investors," weary of the vagaries of the stock market, are investing in farmland, reports P.J. Huffstutter of the Los Angeles Times. Average U.S. farmland prices have nearly doubled in the last decade to $2,140 an acre, according to the Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Those with the resources are buying up apple orchards, corn fields and sugar plantations, says Huffstutter. After the purchase, the land is generally turned over to someone else to manage the day-to-day operations. "If all goes well, investors can receive rent, proceeds from crop or livestock sales, or some combination of both."

Like Scarlett O'Hara, investors know the value of arable land, which is dwindling and is affected by nature. The growing interest in knowing where food comes from is also motivating these investors. While investing in farmland does not guarantee a return on investment, one investor said, "Why can't you make money by doing the right thing?"

Some of the land deals have "sprouted a backlash and raised concerns of speculators becoming wealthy at the environmental and economic expense of local communities. John Peck, executive director of the anti-corporate farming group Family Farm Defenders, said institutional investors could distort global food production patterns by planting crops for profitability rather than nutrition." (Read more)

Monthly midnight trips to buy necessities are a sign of continued economic stress

Despite this week's announcement that the recession actually ended in June 2009, many Americans are still financially stressed. That effect may be most visible at a time and place you might not have reckoned: turn-of-the-month midnights at Wal-Mart.

Bill Simon, CEO of the company's U.S. business, said at a recent Goldman Sachs conference, "It is our responsibility to figure out how to sell in that environment, adjusting pack sizes, large pack at sizes the beginning of the month, small pack sizes at the end of the month — and to figure out how to deal with what is an ever-increasing amount of transactions being paid for with government assistance," which comes at the first of the month — at midnight, through electronic government electronic benefits cards.

"About 11 p.m., customers start to come in and shop, fill their grocery basket with basic items, baby formula, milk, bread, eggs,and continue to shop and mill about the store until midnight, when [the] cards get activated and then the checkout starts and occurs," Simon said. "And our sales for those first few hours on the first of the month are substantially and significantly higher. And if you really think about it, the only reason somebody gets out in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it, and they’ve been waiting for it." (Read more from The Wall Street Journal)

FCC plans to provide rural schools with more Internet options

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to overhaul the E-Rate program, mainly a boon to rural areas, to give schools more options for Internet service. "The proposed E-Rate order would allow schools and libraries to use federal funds to lease unused local communication lines, known as dark fiber, to connect to the Internet, a potentially faster and lower-cost connection than currently offered through many local telecommunications companies," Edward Wyatt of The New York Times reports. The $2.25 billion program subsidizes Internet service for schools and public libraries, mostly in poor and rural areas.

"At its monthly meeting on Thursday, the FCC also will consider allowing schools to open the use of Internet resources paid for with E-Rate funds to the local community after school hours and when school is not in session, which is currently not allowed under E-Rate regulations," Wyatt writes. The E-Rate program is funded through a fee collected from all telephone users. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told Wyatt, "For the good of our economy, we need all of our kids to be digitally literate." (Read more)

Farmers say EPA 'dust-up' is over nothing

As the Environmental Protection Agency considers tougher regulations for farm dust, some farmers say dust isn't a real pollutant and is an accepted part of rural life. "EPA is reviewing its airborne pollutant standards, as required every five years under the Clean Air Act," Rick Callahan of The Associated Press reports. "It's looking both at its standards for tiny particles of industrial pollution, and slightly larger particles called 'coarse particulate matter' that include dust." Indiana grain farmer Charles Schmitt called tougher dust regulations "ridiculous" and told Callahan, "Mother Nature has more to do with it than we do — there's going to be dust and dirt no matter what."

"Supporters of tougher restrictions said they're needed to help clear the air of tiny grains that can lodge deep in the lungs, worsening heart and respiratory problems," Callahan writes. Agriculture groups and farmers say those concerns are overstated, and "tighter rules could hurt rural areas, which they fear might exceed new limits and be required to implement plans to reduce dust," Callahan writes. In a July letter to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, nearly two dozen farm-state senators urged the agency to keep current standards.

"Every industry that sees that they're going to have to clean up have had the same concerns and we've seen time and again where they were able to figure out a solution," said Janice Nolen, vice president for national policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association, which favors stricter regulations. Industry advocates maintain the concern is much ado about nothing. "When you get out into the agricultural areas of this country what you have is dust — dust is a part of doing business," Tamara Thies, chief environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, told Callahan. "And most of rural dust is just dust." EPA is expected to announce any proposed changes in February; it would finalize a new rule by October 2011. (Read more)

States weigh merits of cleaner coal vs. high costs

Climate legislation faces an uncertain future in Congress, and with it the proposed billions in spending for "clean coal" technologies. That has focused new attention on technologies that don't elminate carbon-dixide emissions but greatly reduce them. Integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) is one of those low-carbon options. "It essentially extracts carbon dioxide from coal and concentrates it before the remaining gas is burned to generate power. The CO2 can then be dispatched for storage underground," Saqib Rahim of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "Yet like many low-carbon technologies, IGCC is unproven at scale. Capital costs can top a few billion dollars, so investors are reluctant to build an IGCC plant fully on their own dime."

"The investors and utilities have argued that IGCC plants offer a hedge against two trends: rising electricity costs and the likelihood of federal climate legislation," Rahim writes. At the state level, "Public service commissions have had to consider whether the benefits -- emissions cuts, jobs from carbon capture and storage -- outweigh the costs." Results have been mixed, with a few plants being approved despite fears of growing price tags and others being denied due to high costs. "The fundamental problem is that the commissions, for the most part, are required to do the cheapest thing and most reliable thing they can," John Thompson, director of the coal transition project for the Clean Air Task Force, told Rahim. "How does a public service commission consider the impact of future carbon regulations when those regulations aren't on the books yet?"

Rahim reports, "Industry observers . . . lament that 'everyone wants to be the first to build the second one'." They say the only way to bring down the cost of such facilities is to start building them so they can be evaluated and future projects will know where to cut costs. The availability of natural gas has also dealt a blow to IGCC advocates, offering a cheaper, cleaner option than coal.

Some say without climate legislation from Congress, carbon-capture and storage technology will not be implemented, and then it may be too late. "Many utilities are in denial about carbon management. I believe any plant built today will need to manage carbon sooner rather than later," David Hadley, a former member of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, told Rahim. "One hundred new coal plants. Only a handful are IGCC. Utilities like to do things the way they have always done them." (Read more, subscription required)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Health-reform benefits, and costs, start Thursday; poll shows most Americans still don't grasp it

The health-care reform law passed by Congress will begin taking effect Thursday, six months after passage. The complex package has been the subject of much post-passage debate and demagoguery, which is escalating as the congressional elections come closer, so this week is an ideal time to give readers, listeners and viewers an evenhanded description of the law and its ramifications. UPDATE, Sept. 20: "The nation still doesn't really know what's in it," The Associated Press reports, citing its latest poll.

Starting Thursday, when a health-insurance company writes or renews a policy, it must, for example, cover offspring of policyholders until they are 26, cover pre-existing conditions for children, allow an external appeal of its refusal to cover a service, and not include any lifetime limits on coverage. There are some exceptions, which Cheryl Powell explains in The Akron Beacon Journal. She notes that Ohio has passed related measures of its own; some other states have done likewise.

There are several independent, reliable sources for information on the health-reform law. One is the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has a summary of the law, a timeline for implementation, an explanation of how it will expand access to coverage, and other useful information. Just added to the site is an animated short movie that explains the law "to an American public still confused by how it works," the foundation says. Narrated by journalist Cokie Roberts, it explains problems in the current system, short-term changes set to take place between now and 2014, and major provisions to take effect in 2014.

Jim Gallagher, personal finance columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has an easy-to-read listing of the changes and the important details to watch for. He also points out that when Congress passed the law, it told federal agencies to write rules filling in the details, and they're still at it. The White House website on the law is here.

Barbecue ribs and buck dancing help convince Chinese to trade with Tenn.

Tennessee business people entertained Chinese business executives in Leiper's Fork, Tenn., to "connect at the heart before they can connect on a business deal," Aubrey Preston, a musician and wealthy business mogul said to Josh Adams of The Tennessean. A hoedown, barbecue ribs and corn pudding combined to make a memorable visit for 10 Chinese business executives and government officials. In 2008, Chinese consumers bought more than $1.3 billion worth of Tennessee goods and services, making China the third largest importer of Tennessee goods (behind Mexico and Canada). (Photo by The Tennessean.)

Uncle Lester, a "Leiper's Fork legend in his silver-sequined shoes," got the dancing started. Within minutes, the wood floor bounced rhythmically as dancers pounded out the steps, reported Adams. "We can take them to the governor's conference and to Nissan and that's it. But they will never forget this for the rest of their life," said Li Weaver who works for Tennessee's department of Economic and Community Development. (Read more)

U.S. agriculture is facing serious phosphorus dependence

Modern farming methods depend more and more on fossil fuels, and while oil has garnered much of the focus, another fossil fuel may be nearing a dangerous shortage: phosphorus. "We know peak oil is fast approaching, if it has not already arrived. This isn't the only shortage that should concern us," C. Robert Taylor, professor of agricultural economics at Auburn University, writes for the Daily Yonder. "Peak phosphorus is occurring along with peak oil. The earth's supply of these critical resources is dwindling rapidly." Control of these resources may be among the most important issues facing U.S. agriculture, Taylor writes.

"A New York Times writer recently said that phosphorus availability is 'the gravest natural resource shortage you’ve never heard of,'" Taylor writes. "The fact is, corporate and political control of essential plant nutrients may be the gravest long run competition issue you’ve never heard of." At present consumption rates the U.S. phosphorus reserve will be exhausted within 10 to 15 years, Taylor reports. Modern agriculture worsens the problem with wasteful phosphorus usage. Phosphorus removed from fields during harvests must eventually be replaced to avoid food and plant biomass yield decreases, Taylor writes.

"Between the world wars, 90 percent of phosphate rock exports were controlled by cartels. And cartels still dominate fertilizer reserves and trade," Taylor writes. Export taxes in China have essentially removed the country from the world phosphorus market, leaving the U.S. and Morocco as the major suppliers. "Trade in phosphorus is dominated by three corporations: Mosaic (Cargill), Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, and OCP," Taylor writes. The companies exhibit even more political control as Cargill and Potash form an expert cartel called PhosChem.

The U.S. has developed an ambitious plan to reduce dependence on foreign oil through domestic plant-based biofuels, but Taylor worries that plan shifts oil dependence to phosphorus. "The countries of the world must begin meaningful discussion about what kind of food production system and food economy are best for humanity," Taylor concludes. "Those with narrow political interests or the selfish few corporate executives and their puppets should not prevail in developing a new food system." (Read more)

Three-month investigation examines meth labs in east Tenn.

About one-third of all methamphetamine labs reported nationwide in 2009 were in Tennessee, and the state ranked second to Missouri in the number of reported labs. In a five-day series, the Knoxville News-Sentinel examined the problem ravaging east Tennessee, discovering despite the recent crackdown on meth in the state that meth cooks have simply adopted the "shake-and-bake" method to go around restrictions. "I've made it every way there is, and I've never bought a thing," Jason Thomas, a convicted meth cook, told Matt Lakin. "I can make it anytime I want."

The newspaper's three-month investigation reveal meth cooks have simply recruited others to buy the drug's key ingredient, psuedoephedrine, after the state moved it behind pharmacy counters. While meth abuse used to be a distinctly rural problem in Tennessee, now some cities see more cases in a month than rural areas see in a year, the News-Sentinel reports. "Roughly two-thirds of the old labs still sit empty, unused and unfit for human habitation," Lakin writes. "The state can quarantine property, but it can't force a cleanup." The investigation also revealed some labs are never quarantined, meaning homes across the state can "sit seeping poison," unknown to future residents. (Photo of two grams of meth by Brimer)

The five-day series from Lakin and Adam Brimer also examined the drugs' cost to families in the state and its toll on Tennessee's children. Ten east Tennessee counties accounted for over one-third of the 9,000-plus meth lab busts statewide in the past decade, Lakin writes, with nine of those counties being clustered just off Interstate 75. Still state law enforcement says the problem is no longer a rural one. "When all this started, everybody kept comparing it to moonshining and calling it a hillbilly drug," Tommy Farmer, director of the state meth task force, told Lakin. "But just because you don't have meth lab seizures in your area doesn't mean you don't have a meth problem. It's not moving west. It was already there. We're just doing a better job of going out and getting them."

You can read the index of the entire series here.

Ethanol industry takes issue with EPA emission rules

Biofuels aren't usually thought of as one of the leading causes of global warming, but new Environmental Protection Agency emission regulations could treat them as such. "The regulations, due to take effect in January, would count as greenhouse gases the carbon dioxide that's released when corn is fermented into motor fuel or when corn stalks, straw and other sources of biomass are burned to make electricity," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. "That means a paperwork and financial burden for most of [Iowa's] 39 ethanol plants. The regulations won't require polluters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but could in the future."

The ethanol industry is appealing to EPA for the agency to reconsider how it regulates biofuel emissions. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reports "a typical Iowa ethanol plant would release about 300,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year - if the emissions from fermentation are included - three times the 100,000-ton level that triggers the agency regulation," Brasher writes. The rules won't have much impact on the 15 Iowa ethanol plants already regulated by the federal Clean Air Act, but now the rest of the state's plants will be regulated by the act.

Marnie Stein of the DNR's Air Quality Bureau told Brasher that fees paid on pollutants would likely average between $5,600 and $11,200 per year for the plants. "Those fees could be quite costly for some ethanol plants," Geoff Cooper, who follows regulatory issues for the Renewable Fuels Association, a Washington trade group, told Brasher. Most greenhouse gas calculations don't include emissions from biological sources because carbon released from corn or biomass will eventually be returned to earth as crops and other biomass sources. RFA wants Iowa regulators to exempt such emissions without EPA action, but Stein said the agency has no choice but to mirror EPA's position. (Read more)

Rural black youth may not see a future in farming

Just 1.4 percent of the nation's 2.2 million farms are operated by African Americans and some fear that number may be on the decline. "At the turn of the last century, there were probably hundreds of thousands of black farmers, mostly sharecroppers in the South, federal agriculture experts say," Deborah Barfield Berry reports for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "For economic reasons, many moved elsewhere and left farming behind." The number of black farmers actually increased by 5.2 percent between 2002 and 2007, in part because of outreach efforts aimed at better tracking of black farmers.

In addition to the problems all farmers face, black farmers point to discrimination in applying for federal aid as an additional challenge. Willie James Brown, a black farmer who has spent 60 years farming in Marbury, Ala., said he doesn't see a future in agriculture for his 18 grandchildren. "They're not thinking about no farming," Brown, 77, told Berry. "They see us go to the banks and get turned away." Black farmers who missed a deadline to file claims as part of the 1999 settlement in the class-action lawsuit claiming discrimination by agriculture officials have reached a separate $1.2 million settlement. Congress has yet to make the money available.

Census data shows "about 27 percent of all black farmers received government subsidies in 2007 compared to 39 percent of whites," Berry writes. Subsidies include aid and conservation payments. "If I'm not getting those funds, I can't compete," John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, told Berry. Still Robert Binion, a 61-year-old black farmer from Canton, Ala., hopes to attract black youths to farming. His pitch is that growing your own food is rewarding, even if  "you don't do nothing but plant two rows by your house." (Read more)